We all know the sage old advice of “writing what you know.” It isn’t so much that we should limit our writing to our daily lives, but that we should use our highs and lows in our writing along with the physical sensations and emotions they produced.
To give our characters depth of emotion and experience, we need to lend them ours.
Normally a writer’s mind records the big stuff even as we go through it. It’s how we’re built. It’s much harder to remember the rest of our range of experiences but they also give life and flavor to our characters.
A writer’s journal is a good way to record events for future use–things like birth, death, achievement, loss, promotion–the big things. But also draw on other experiences such as childhood humiliation, betrayal, enthusiasm and excitement. Record your experiences of break ups, friends you miss, narrow escapes and if-only moments, lonely days and the best days you’ve had.
The beauty of a powerful experience is the ability to extrapolate and translate the thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions into other scenarios.
One example is instant attraction. Think about what you experienced–sweaty palms, dry mouth, a flutter in your stomach, and a host of thoughts and emotions that go with it. That eexperience can be translated to any character scenario involving anticipation, waiting,for news, nearly reaching a goal. With a little twist, it can also translate to obsession, fixation, reading your lottery ticket as they call each of your numbers. Use the core of what you experienced on a deeply personal level and give it to your character.
Another example is a car crash. Impact, stuttered stop-frame moments, shock, confusion, the chaos of emergency personnel and everyone talking to you at once, the physical symptoms of pain, fear, relief, and the rest of it, is traumatic. So are bombings, hostage situations, taking a bad fall, natural and man-made disasters. With a little imagination, the aftermath of an accident is equally usable for different situations.
Never be afraid to lend your personal and deep reactions to your characters. Writing what you know may feel like strolling naked down Main Street, but the best writing always does.
Store up your memories in detail. Use them. Be vulnerable.